Rugby is a sport that is proud of its core values. These values are held up as an example to the rest of sporting world, with rugby fans often championing the sport’s supposedly unique levels of respect, sportsmanship and decency. Recent incidents, however, suggest these values could be being eroded, with simulation, doping and abuse of the referee on the rise.
Instances of horrific treatment of referees occasionally surface online. One video that emerged, of an Australian youth player punching a referee, is an extreme example. A 2018 case of horrific verbal abuse at Coleraine Rugby Club another. However, whilst these appear outliers in terms of their intensity, a 2016 survey by the Telegraph suggests the issue is more widespread than may initially be thought. Of those questioned, 67% said they had been subject to abuse, 90% of which was verbal, with 10% physical. A shocking 74% said they believed it was on the rise, and 86% believed there had been an erosion of the values of respect and sportsmanship.
This decline is startling, but it manifests itself in other areas too. The issue of simulation flared up after the Champions Cup quarter final between Edinburgh and Munster, in which a soft penalty won by Tadhg Beirne’s theatrics led to Munster winning the game late on. Edinburgh director of rugby Richard Cockerill was incensed, stating unambiguously “clearly Beirne at point took a dive,” and warning simulation could be beginning to “creep into” the game, with David Flatman and Brian O’Driscoll amongst a raft of ex-players echoing Cockerill. In June 2016 World Rugby introduced rules to stop simulation ahead of the Autumn Internationals, a move that suggests this is far from an isolated incident.
Finally, doping in amateur sport has been described by the UK Anti-Doping Agency as “fast becoming a crisis.” According to an anonymous 19-year-old speaking to BBC Scotland, who played in the country’s National League, “Lower leagues? I’d say roughly two people per team are one some sort of substances, a fat stripping or a bulking supplement or something like that.” Furthermore, a separate BBC poll demonstrated 65% of responding rugby players believed performance enhancing drugs were easy to get hold of, with 52% knowing someone who has taken them.
The idea rugby has a problem with doping has however been refuted by Sir Ian McGeechan, who stated that at the top level, “rugby union does not have a problem with drugs.”
Perspective is necessary when assessing whether rugby’s values have been compromised. The data would suggest so, but rugby remains a sport in which doping and diving are extremely rare, and publicly condemned when they do occur. It is important, then, not to sensationalise these evident problems. Although increasing, diving and doping remain peripheral issues, whereas abuse of the referee appears far more widespread, one of the most pressing challenges for those in the game. With vigilance these changes can be halted.
Written by Joe Ronan